Melanie Spanswick's Tips for Healthy Piano Playing
My workshops for piano teachers offer a few ideas for developing basic flexibility in piano technique, with a view to harbouring positive habits during piano practice and piano performance. It’s a privilege to work with teachers, talking about technique, how to develop it, and more specifically, how to keep students free from pain, discomfort and tension.
The following tips serve as elementary suggestions; some can be done away from the instrument, and, as with piano practice, regularity is the key to success.
Before a practice session begins, sit at the instrument and drop your arms by your side, so that they hang loosely from the shoulders. Ensure your upper torso is really relaxed; it’s sometimes difficult to notice tension – this is why a good teacher can prove crucial. Relax from the shoulders and arms, through to the wrist and hand. The feeling should be one of looseness and ‘heaviness’. Remember this feeling, as it provides a useful reminder of relaxation during practice sessions.
From this relaxed position, swing your arms up (from the elbows), and literally rest the hands on the keyboard or a table top; it’s the ‘feeling’ that you need to cultivate, so it doesn’t matter if there’s no instrument present. Keep your upper body relaxed and loose as your hands rest on the piano keyboard. And don’t worry if you are not in the ‘correct’ playing position (your hands and wrists will probably be in a hanging position). This is not about playing, but rather about understanding the feeling of relaxation required for the concept of ‘tension and release’ necessary in developing technique. Assimilation may take time, especially in older students.
The next step is to use a simple five finger exercise: try middle C – G with both hands in either minims (half notes) or semibreves (whole notes). Start with the thumb (in the right hand); play and hold the note (middle C) and then drop the hand and wrist afterwards. Keep hold of the note; you may need the other hand to help here, as both the thumb and fingers have a tendency to fall off the keys at first. As you drop your wrist, ensure that it feels loose; the wrist should be relaxed, and will probably be ‘hanging’ down from the key. It’s not the position you would ever use to play, but it can provide the key to promoting flexibility, fostering relaxation. Work at each note in this way and then try with the left hand.
The final step for basic relaxation would be to use the five finger exercise again, but this time introduce a circular wrist motion technique. That is, using the same note pattern, but forming a circular motion with the wrist between every note whilst keeping it depressed. They key here is to make sure that the whole arm, wrist and hand feel totally loose. If done after every note, this motion can really instigate complete flexibility, both physically and mentally, that is, students learn to remember the feeling and start to implement this into their practice regime. I encourage pupils to play to the bottom of the key bed, or play heavily and powerfully on every note, establishing a firmer touch.
These steps may take a good few weeks to master, after which we move on to little exercises (usually by Czerny, and these are followed by J S Bach’s Two-Part Inventions), implementing wrist motion techniques on extended passagework.
You can find out more in the technique sections at the beginning of my piano course, Play it again: PIANO published by Schott Music (Book 3 will be published in January/February 2019).